Over the years, the Los Angeles Film Festival has devoted resources to red-carpet pomp and underdog triumphalism in equal measure. It has showcased scrappy indies by unknown directors cheek-by-jowl with big budget studio fare such as The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and 2007’s Transformers while remaining overshadowed by higher profile festival showcases such as Sundance and Toronto. And that’s fostered something of an identity crisis.
The LAFF—which officially kicks off Wednesday evening with the L.A. premiere of the Lily Tomlin comedy-drama Grandma—is Hollywood’s hometown film fest, with all the access to top-tier talent that SoCal geography affords. Yet it has struggled mightily to stake out the middle ground between art-house obscurity and multiplex mass appeal in an increasingly crowded festival landscape.
This year, however, in a lineup packed with populist offerings, such as a gala screening of Disney’s animated blockbuster-in-the-making Inside Out and a premiere of the pilot for MTV’s series adaptation of the ‘90s horror-comedy franchise Scream, the festival’s mission has cohered around a populist ideal: programming the widest possible multiplicity of cinematic voices.
According to Los Angeles Film Festival director Stephanie Allain, 40 percent of the movies at the fest are directed by women and a full one-third were made by filmmakers of color. “Our festival is on track to be the most diverse mainstream festival in the world,” Allain says, pointing out the LAFF’s parent organization also organizes and stages the Independent Spirit Awards. “Our job is to put the spotlight on diverse filmmakers. We want to be the change we are looking for. That became our mantra.”
Toward that end, the festival will premiere the directorial debut of former pro basketball player Baron Davis, whose The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce (co-directed by Chad Gordon) examines an amateur basketball league in rough-and-tumble South Los Angeles where professional ballers inspire the local community while also raising their own respective games. The ‘80s-set dramedy Seoul Searching—about a rambunctious group of foreign-born Korean teenagers in 1986 who travel to South Korea for lessons in cultural immersion—continues its festival tour that began in January at the Sundance Film Festival.
And in the LAFF documentary competition, In a Perfect World… investigates a generation of African-American and Latino men who have been brought up by single mothers—a societal condition that’s personalized when director Daphne McWilliams turns the camera on herself and her own son to detail the father who abandoned him.
In an era when a recent Diversity Report by UCLA has quantitatively established that movies with multicultural casts generate bigger box-office returns than films with fewer actors of color, it seems like a savvy, big-picture programming decision.
Among the fest’s other world premieres, A Country Called Home stars Imogen Poots as a young woman struggling to discover herself after the death of her estranged father; the dramedy Puerto Ricans in Paris stars Luis Guzman and Edgar Garcia as New York City detectives hired by a top French fashion house to nab a counterfeiter threatening to flood the market with knock-off handbags; and thriller Too Late features Oscar nominee John Hawkes as a P.I. trawling a quasi-mystical Los Angeles landscape in search of a missing woman from his own past.
But then there are the festival’s freewheeling events, what Allain calls the “popcorn eating, restore the magic and fun of butts-in-seats, crowd-pleasing kind of fun.” Exhibit A: a 15th anniversary screening of director Gina Prince Bythewood’s romance Love & Basketball (Jun. 13) featuring cast members Alfre Woodard, Kyla Pratt and Dennis Haysbert. There also will be a free screening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit at downtown Los Angeles’ Union Station.
And for the festival’s closing night, writer-director-torture porn auteur Eli Roth—whose breakthrough came from showing up to the screening of his debut feature Cabin Fever at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2003 drenched in fake blood—will direct a live read of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the coming-of-age drama written by Cameron Crowe and directed by Amy Heckerling that is perhaps responsible for more tropes of teenage Cali slang and behavior than any other single film.
“It’s an L.A. story,” Allain says.
For more info, consult the Los Angeles Film Festival website: http://www.lafilmfest.com